Seven Things I Wish I Knew When I Was Still in College
College is more than job training. It's your chance to explore, make friends, and grow as a person. Unfortunately, college is also more expensive than it's ever been, so you have to balance your exploration with some hard-nosed practicality. Here are some things we wish we knew while we were still in college.
I went to college nearly twenty years ago and, even though I'm not exactly working in a field related to my major, I still count it as one of the most valuable experiences of my life. In addition to thinking about what I wish I had known back then, I talked to a bunch of people when I was prepping this article: the Lifehacker staff, some old friends from college, some people in college right now, and some people who are college bound in the next year or so. I also read what a lot of you had to say on the subject
The Friendships You Make in College Can Get You a Job Later
People have their eyes on top schools not just because the diploma bears that name, but because of the connections they make while they are there. Every person I talked to listed this as the number one thing they wish they knew when they were in college, or at least took better advantage of.
Our own Eric Ravenscraft put it best:
The friendships you make now will get you a job later. The people you meet and the relationships you build are your best networking tool. Handing out business cards and going to cocktail parties doesn't compare to having a college buddy that went on to a high profile company. When one person in your group 'makes it', they'll bring everyone else with them.
There are all kinds of ways you can make friends in college, even if you're not the outgoing type. If you're living in a dorm, start there. These are people you see every day and they all feel pretty much the same as you do. So just go for it. Whitson Gordon says:
Make friends with the people in your dorm. Don't be afraid to do stuff, even if it's just a foosball game on Wednesday night. They don't have to be your best friends. Heck, even if they're the kind of people you wouldn't usually be friends with, it helps to have them when you're starting out. I didn't stay in contact with the majority of people from my freshman hall, but I wish I'd spent more time with them while I was there. I spent most of my time holed up in my room for stupid reasons, and I wish I'd taken more advantage of the people around me.
Even if you're not living in a dorm, you still have plenty of opportunities to make friends:
- Join or form a study group. Not only are study groups a great way to stay on top of classes, they're a great way to make new friends. Just do yourself a favor and join a group that actually wants to get some work done rather than just have fun.
- Be a joiner. Join every club or group that interests you, especially those that are related to your major. You'll meet people that share your interests and engaging in other activities looks good to future employers and on grad school interviews. Alan Henry offers this advice:
Get involved in other stuff early - extracurriculars, clubs, teams, whatever - do as much as you can stand and then do a little more until your grades start to suffer and then pull back - I don't want to feed any "this is the best time of your life" bullshit too someone, but it's definitely a time you won't get again, so experience it as much as you can. Oh, and don't forget that you're there to study, too.
Focus More on Learning than Grades
Grades are important. But you're in college to get an education and some experience, not necessarily a transcript. Until recently, I'd have given the advice that nobody is ever going to look at your GPA after you graduate unless you're off to grad school. But that has changed a bit in recent years.
With the job market as competitive as it is right now, many potential employers do look at your GPA as one more way to distinguish you from the hundreds of other people applying for the same job you want. This is especially true if you're looking into a government job. Unfortunately, that's the world we're living in right now.
So, yes, you do need to look after your grades. Just not to the extent that you miss out on all the other important things college has to offer. Alan's advice:
If you know you want to study something and it gets to you, use those electives to take classes of crazy, ridiculous, off-major nature so you get the opportunity to expose yourself to new ideas. Studying business? Take a music history class. Studying physics? Take an art and architecture course. Studying engineering? Take a sociology class. Use your electives to expand your horizons, not just pad your GPA with easy fluff As.
Take Advantages of the Resources Colleges Offer
Colleges offer a wealth of resources that many students simply never take advantage of. Take the time to visit the campus center or administration office and find out what your college offers. You'll likely find that they offer things like:
- Career services. Most colleges offer career services of some sort. Some individual departments also offer major-specific career services. Offerings include things like job fairs, resume assistance, mock interviews, internships, and campus jobs.
- Child care. Many colleges offer inexpensive day care for students with children. There's often a waiting list, though, so be sure to check it out early.
- Financial aid. Almost every college offers a financial aid center that can help you with everything from applying for scholarships and grants to navigating student loans to finding jobs on- or off-campus.
- Health services. Most colleges offer some form of health services for treating injured or sick students. Many also offer free classes in nutrition, fitness, and other health-related things.
On the subject of health services, Adam Dachis also offers this useful tip:
Your student union probably has tons of free condoms, so get them in case you need them! They're free condoms! (I knew this while at college because I handed them out, but a lot of people don't know that.)
Get to Know Your Professors
One of the things many college students miss out on is having a good relationship with their professors. People often come to college with a high-school mindset that says "teachers are teachers and kids are kids and nobody wants to mix those together." But you're an adult now and you can certainly have an adult relationship with your professors.
Not every professor is going to want to join you for drinks or be your best friend. But if you can break out of the teacher/student mindset enough to engage them in a more professional relationship, it can be very rewarding. You should also take advantage of services your professor offers, like office hours. Whitson encourages you t
Go to office hours. I can't stress this enough. It's something everyone tells you when you first go to college, and something every student says "yeah, whatever" too. But as soon as I started going to office hours my grades in those classes jumped. Seriously, it's like getting an almost-free A. Go. It will make your life a billion times easier.
Most professors are more than willing to put in a little extra effort with a student that shows they're willing to put in some effort, too.
Study Abroad if at all Possible
Another piece of advice I heard from nearly everyone I talked to was that they really wished they had made the effort to study abroad. And those that did said it was hugely rewarding.
Studying abroad can give you a fresh perspective not only on your academic studies, but on the world at large. You will develop new levels of independence and self-confidence. You stand the chance to become proficient in a foreign language. And you will make friends that can be invaluable later in life.
Be Careful with Student Loans
This one sounds a little obvious, especially as much as student debt has been in the news lately. Sometimes, student loans are unavoidable. If you're not eligible for scholarships and don't have parents willing to foot the bill, taking out a student loan may be your only avenue for attending college.
Unfortunately, student loan debt has skyrocketed recently and can cause real hardship after college. According to The Project on Student Debt:
Seven in 10 college seniors (71%) who graduated last year had student loan debt, with an average of $29,400 per borrower. From 2008 to 2012, debt at graduation (federal and private loans combined) increased an average of six percent each year.
Thorin Klosowksi has this piece of advice:
When you're taking student loans, it's tempting to take everything they offer you, but it's really, really, really, not worth it. Take enough to cover the essentials and find work elsewhere (or better, find work on campus).
We've talked a bit on Lifehacker about repaying student debt
Be Choosy About Your Roommates
Your college years are a time when you are most likely to end up with roommates. Unless you're living in a dorm where roommate assignments happen, you'll at least be able to choose who you live with. While it's tempting to live with people because they're fun, that's not always the best choice.
Instead, choose someone that you get along with who is also responsible. And ideally, look for someone with similar study habits to your own. You don't want to live with somebody who has to have loud music going when the study when you're the kind of person who works best when it's quiet. As Adam puts it:
College kids, especially post-dorm, are not well-equipped for the realities of actually managing a real apartment. If you don't want a roommate who forgets to pay rent and can hurt your credit in the process, is difficult to split bills with, never cleans, is noisy when you want to sleep, etc., then make sure you pick someone you know is responsible. Fun people you like can be definitely be responsible, but your best friend in college may not be that person. You may get along really well, but if you're not pretty sure they can handle the responsibilities of being an adult, you're better off choosing somebody who can.
Tessa Miller also makes the very good point that you "should not move in with your boyfriend/girlfriend. You've got plenty of time for that after college!" and I have to second her on that. I moved in with my girlfriend when we were both in college and it worked out great. Until we broke up. And then we had that to deal with. From an academic perspective as well as a personal one, that was about the worst semester I spent in college.
And there you have it. Hopefully, if you're college-bound or in college right now, some of this will be useful to you. If I could add one more piece of advice, it would be this. Remember to have some fun. College is a unique time where you have room to explore. You have responsibilities, but not too many. What's expected of you is made very clear from the beginning. So work hard, enjoy yourself, and take advantage of every moment.